Welcome to Ask Curology, a series on the Curology blog where one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers answers your questions about all things skincare. This week, we’re looking at the link (or lack thereof) between cold season and acne breakouts — and the answer might surprise you.
Why is my skin so bad whenever I get a cold? When I’m sick, I end up with acne around the creases of my nose, then my face gets super dry and some parts of my skin hurt to touch. It’s super uncomfortable and my skin is still recovering weeks after I feel better! What am I doing wrong? Please help me figure out how to do skincare when I’m sick.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed in Winter
Cold and flu season is the absolute worst — and I hope you feel better soon — but in terms of your question, the common cold isn’t a direct cause of acne. That isn’t to say that your cold and your breakouts (among other issues) aren’t related — on the contrary, there are certain changes that occur in our bodies when we are sick, potentially triggering an acne breakout. Likewise, it may also be our environment or lifestyle that is playing a role.
First off, the fact that cold and flu season coincides with winter isn’t helping anyone. The combination of cold, dry air and illness can take a toll on our bodies, skin included. Cold air, as well as indoor heating, can significantly dry out our skin, which may result in an impaired moisture barrier that is more easily irritated and prone to breakouts. To counteract this, I recommend running a humidifier while you sleep. Not only will this help hydrate your skin, but it may also help with nighttime congestion.
Just as the cold season dries out our skin, it’s easy to become dehydrated when we’re sick, particularly if we have a fever. You probably already know how important it is to stay hydrated when we’re not feeling our best — so apply the same concept to your skin, and use a good, non-comedogenic moisturizer to hydrate your skin. And if it’s super cold and windy, don’t forget to cover your face with a scarf or another form of protection.
So now that we’ve covered potential environmental factors that can play a role in your skin seemingly getting worse, let’s talk about the relationship between your immune system and your skin. Since being sick is a stressor on our bodies, your immune system and your skin may both be affected by stress. Sleep deprivation — which can get a lot worse if a cough is keeping you up all night — further exacerbates our stress levels.
Although stress doesn’t directly cause acne, the associated hormonal changes may trigger acne. Certain steroid hormones, such as glucocorticoids and adrenal androgens, are released during stress. These hormones stimulate the oil glands in the skin, beginning a process that leads to acne. So, it’s possible that being ill could induce an acne flare — which might be what’s happening around your nose.
On the other hand, blowing your nose repeatedly can irritate your skin. Dry, sore, or chapped skin with an impaired moisture barrier can be more prone to breakouts. Also, if you’re using those lotion-laced tissues, they might contain irritating ingredients and could be a potential culprit of your breakout. Instead, try to keep your irritated nose moisturized with a thin layer of pure petrolatum (Vaseline).
Finally, being sick can throw us off of our routines — skin routine included. If you’re so bedbound that you skip cleansing your face for multiple days in a row, this can lead to a buildup of dirt and oil on the skin’s surface, leaving us more prone to breakouts. And if you’re lying in bed for days at a time, it’s also possible for a dirty pillowcase to contribute to an acne breakout. Anything that increases moisture and friction may cause a breakout. Translation: if you’ve been tossing and turning in your sweaty fever dreams, you might try replacing your pillowcase daily, or try putting a clean T-shirt over your pillow.
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To make a long story short: even though it’s unlikely your cold is making you break out, there are several factors that could be contributing, so I recommend the following:
Hydrate regularly, especially if you have dry or chapped skin. Use a non-comedogenic moisturizer such as pure petrolatum (Vaseline) and drink plenty of fluids.
Prioritize your sleep. Our bodies need at least 7 hours of sleep per night when we’re healthy and even more when we’re sick — and they don’t call it beauty rest for nothing.
Change your pillowcase. Typically, once a week is fine, but if you’re in bed all day with a cold, changing it daily may help.
Stick to your skincare routine. Cleanse regularly and moisturize if your skin needs it.
Relax. Rest as much as possible — unnecessary stress won’t help your body get better faster!
I hope this helps! And also, if you’re struggling with breakouts, feel free to sign up for a free month of Curology — one of our in-house dermatology providers will prescribe an acne treatment customized for your needs, and we can throw in a non-comedogenic cleanser and moisturizer for no extra cost. All you pay is $4.95 (plus tax) for shipping and handling.
Allison Buckley, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
Allison Buckley, NP-C
Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C